It is ten years since Daniel Kitson won the Perrier award in Edinburgh. Since then he has done everything he can to make sure that accepting that gong wasn't a gateway to popular commercial success, even if he is he's the best worst-kept secret in comedy, respected by his contemporaries from Russell Howard to Stewart Lee.
The bittersweet, bespectacled comic has done this by building a cult audience in modest venues and avoiding exposure in any medium other than live performance.
Alongside his comedy shows, Kitson's storytelling theatre work has also flourished, with 'It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later' enjoying a run at the National Theatre (and breaking their website with the demand for tickets) last year.
'As of 1.52...' is his latest theatrical foray. It's a play within a play within a play, an exercise in mental gymnastics that takes place in a hall of mirrors.
Kitson sits at a desk on stage with no set (you can see into the wings, emphasising the stripping of layers that is to come) and, appropriately enough, strip lighting bathing the audience in the workaday glow. He explains that the play he's written will not come with the intended staging: "Don't worry, you'll still get the show you paid for, it's just that I'll be reading it."
He then explains that his friend Jen helped him write it ("she's American. No big deal. Don't let that intimidate you") before launching in and introducing us to a scene of their play between elderly patient Max and his carer Connie. Max is about to interest Connie in his life story.
We then meet Dan and Jen within the script, a version of themselves we perceive to be controlling Max and Connie and also Daniel, the writer, another extension of Kitson written in the script. Dan and Jen play with Max's narrative, deciding on his habit of only ever using something once and then leaving it behind with an inscription of his name inside – a simple action that makes an ordinary life extraordinary.
This conceit fuels the banter between the two friends. Dan argues all rules followed to the nth degree lead to death. "No heavy petting?" ripostes Jen to which Dan counters: "That's a municipal ordinance!" The scripted writing process allows Kitson to stand outside of himself (at least one persona removed) and comment on his own canon of work: "yet again, a whimsical story about loneliness!"
The riddle of who is pulling the strings is subtly nuanced throughout. It, along with the various plotlines in play, withstands the buffeting of Kitson's structure that involves him stating each character name before they speak and briskly despatching their sparkling dialogue.
It's breathtaking stuff at times, if not for Kitson's structural shenanigans then for his wordplay and lyricism. "I know it's amazing, I've done it again", he says in one scene, writing everything including his own reviews.
The comics' comic: What they said about Kitson...
Chris Addison "He's the best comic of his generation. Sadly that's my generation."
Stewart Lee "I was at the back of The Stand watching Daniel Kitson's Edinburgh show with Mark Thomas and we had a sense we should probably give up because I felt like that night, stand up got as good as it possibly could."
Jimmy Carr "He's never really done anything on TV, because he's far too good live."
Mark Thomas "There is nothing he says that is without thought, without originality."
Tim Key "Comedians go and have a look at [Kitson] to check how far away we are from where we want to be"
Josie Long "When he comes out on stage, that connection he makes with the crowds is genuine, because his shows are the only access people have to him. He hasn't diluted that with doing other stuff – telly, acting, whatever. It makes each show really special."